Jonah 3:1-10
Psalm 25:4-9
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

The Bridge from Earth to Heaven

Jesus came into Galilee ... saying, "The time
is fulfilled and Kingdom of Heaven is at hand."

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

For centuries Christians have believed a simple formula: the nearer to God, the greater the mystery. Perhaps this has to do with a fundamental truth: that the world, having chosen a completely different way of life and speaking a different language, we might say, cannot communicate with Heaven. Because the categories of humankind — what is valued, what is sought after, what is admired, what people strive for — are so utterly different from Heaven, that what moves the heart of man, when seen in heavenly light, makes no sense ultimately. Alternatively, what Heaven holds in high esteem is held in low esteem on earth ... even mocked by the most worldly people.

Take a simple example: our word pride. As it is linked to personal and social esteem, we can use it to gauge the difference in values between Heaven and earth. We are told throughout our youth that pride is a great positive, something to strive for. Yet as we commence our spiritual journeys, we discover that it is the first and greatest of the Seven Deadly Sins. As glowing the word pride is on earth — Lou Gehrig was the Pride of the Yankees — by that same measure it is a word most unfortunate in Heaven, calling to mind the Pride of Lucifer and the War in Heaven, where one bright angel sought to overthrow God.

Closely tied to pride is humility. In our daily life, this is a word most to be feared. To be humbled before others, to be publicly humiliated in the eyes of the world, this is a horrible prospect for most people. Indeed, people will take their own lives in dread of this thing. Yet, these very same words — humble, humility — enjoy a place of high honor in Heaven, greatly to be admired by the angels and the holy ones. Who among the saints does not count humility first among human qualities? We might even say that it sums up all that is good in the spiritual life:

He has showed you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
To walk humbly with your God, for God, too, is humble. And we can only imagine what a humble God must think of a proud, even arrogant, human.

Mysteriously, on earth, this word is so slippery that the act of claiming it for oneself, to call oneself humble, is instantly to nullify that claim. It slips out of your hand as soon as you assert, "I am humble." Just as mysteriously, if one goes in the opposite direction, always insisting that he or she is not worthy or the lowliest or the least, then the sin of "false humility" invariably is committed. Yes, mysterious, for, you see, Heavenly life on earth is ... an elusive a thing. It is as if our worldly grasp is simply too coarse, too clumsy, to hold so celestial a flower without crushing it.

Perhaps it is human reason, so exalted here on earth and so confident in its own terms, that it is unable to get on Heaven's wavelength. Of course, in Zen Buddhism, among other spiritual disciplines, this is a basic learning: one must turn off one's mind, get out of one's way, leave off vaunting reason, to find the spiritual path. Our attempt to journey to Heaven with our minds — counting the facts, making our case with logic, presenting ourselves in a carefully arranged lighting, stubbornly justifying our position — all of that .... just won't work when the task at hand is spiritual enlightenment. We can only get to Heaven through our hearts, not our minds. For it is the state of one's heart, what we might call our spiritual temperature, which God most values.

Think on the Tower of Babel — an attempt to bridge earth to Heaven by way of advanced engineering, Heaven by way of mathematics and physics. But it just won't do, and it always offends God as yet another instance of man's towering pride. Or let us turn the question around and ask ourselves, "How did God build a bridge from Heaven to earth?" He did it by emptying Himself of His Divine glory and power in order to enter the horrible straits of our broken humanity. He did it by humbling Himself:

Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God
a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born
in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became
obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:8)
Rather than overwhelming the world with His towering and awesome power, God appeared as the helpless infant of homeless parents, a child of the poor.

The Assyrian Empire was a great world power in the eighth century B.C. And Israel, the homeland of Jonah, was one of many lesser kingdoms that cringed in the shadow of the Assyrian king and his army. Its capital, Nineveh, was so vast a city that three days passed before Jonah had walked from one end to the other. The Assyrian god Ashur had moved above the other gods during the centuries of Mesopotamian development and world dominance and was taken as proof that all other gods had fled in the invincible path of the Assyrian army led by Ashur.

We can well imagine why Jonah had fled to Tarshish, which was the opposite end of the known world from Nineveh, when God called Jonah to preach and prophesy to the Ninevites. We can almost hear Jonah's thoughts: Convert the whole city of Nineveh? Speak words of power to Assyrians when I am but one, poor man from a powerless country? Commit suicide in vain for the salvation of the hated Assyrians? It would be as if a farmboy from England traveled to Berlin at the height of World War II calling the Nazis to their knees, to lay in ashes, and to repent for their sins.

Jonah's questions all proceed from sound reason, but God's ways are not our ways, and God says to Jonah:

"And should not I pity Nin'eveh, that great city, in which there are more
than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right
hand from their left ..."? (Jonah 4:11)
For the Israelite this is a mind-stretching concept to be sure. And what will be the process of this conversion? Will a hundred Assyrian theologians be gathered in solemn assembly? Will the chief priests of Israel's Temple be consulted concerning initiation requirements? Will a commission be empaneled to commence regular ecumenical talks? No, that is not it. For that would attempt to bridge earth to Heaven by way of mind, not of heart. No. The only way for the Ninevites to navigate through all the clutter before them — their assumptions, their values, the pantheon of their gods — is to move directly from earth to Heaven through a heart that is broken.

Hearing God's prophet Jonah, this insignificant Israelite, the truth of God's love and power breaks through to them, and they are able to see their lives in the light of Heaven .... and they fall to their knees. Their king leads the entire nation in fasting and prayer, and all the people put on sackcloth and lay in ashes remembering their brief mortality. And from this contrite heart, bypassing brain and reason, a bridge instantly appears from Nineveh to Heaven. And the Ninevites have achieved that rarity among people: authentic and unsullied humility, an offering fragrant and acceptable to God.

I do not know why Hollywood directors have found it so difficult to depict the state of first-century Judea during the predominating ministry of St. John the Baptist. John seems always to be depicted as a mad hermit or some kind of mountain man. I suspect this has to do with an error in Bible translation passed down through the ages beginning in the Gospel of Mark and then transmitted into the Gospel of Matthew (which contains 600 or Mark's 660 verses), claiming that John ate locusts (in fact, John, a vegetarian, ate a kind of manna). In any case, St. John the Baptist is always seen as at least eccentric in our cinematic depictions and certainly a marginal figure, having a sizable following, but certainly not the majority of Judeans. Nonetheless, that is not what the Gospels say: "And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him" (Mk 1:4-5) (emphasis mine). All the people, not merely a majority, but all followed St. John the Baptist and sought to be baptized, sought to repent, sought to lie before God in regret. That is where our first and seminal Gospel of Mark begins. It begins by taking a page directly from the Book of Jonah. A whole people, hearing the truth of a simple prophet, lay in sackcloth and ashes. For as Mark's Gospel plainly reports, they were united as one in repenting of what they had done and begging forgiveness for their sins.

Well might that wonderful word gospel mean good news, for the first verses of our first Gospel depict what the mind strives for in vain, but which the deepest recesses of the soul knows with confidence: union with God can only be achieved by getting out of our own way, by standing on the sweet spot, by following our heart, not our brain. For God's only care, at the end of the age, is a heart that is pure: "For a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise" (Ps 51:17).

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.